Classical Music on the Web

Music Webmaster Len Mullenger


by Philip L. Scowcroft

Of those writing light music in Britain during the first half of the present century - people like Eric Coates, Haydn Wood, Wilfrid Sanderson, Percy Fletcher, Alfred Reynolds, Montague Phillips, Albert Ketelbey and Arthur Wood - some are almost forgotten but others are remembered, if only for one or two short items. One of those apparently in the former category is John Ansell, born on 26 March 1874 and who died at Marlow-on-Thames on 14 December 1948, although his nautical overture Plymouth Hoe (a potpourri of popular nautical melodies rather than a truly original work) remained popular for many years with orchestras and also in a military band arrangement (by Dan Godfrey) and is still occasionally played - rousingly so, and more than once, in Doncaster recently by the Doncaster Schools' Symphonic Band. Yet Ansell's career is of interest as it does to a degree reflect the experience of many of the other light music composers we have mentioned above.

He studied composition at the Guildhall School with the Scots composer Hamish MacCunn and then - like Fletcher, Reynolds, Ketelbey, Arthur Wood, Howard Carr and Herman Finck - pursued a career as a musical director in various London theatres. He had served his apprenticeship there, having played the viola under Sullivan's baton and conducted in most West End theatres at one time or another. He was particularly associated with the Playhouse, where he wrote incidental music for all productions there in his time, the Winter Garden (for seven years), the Alhambra (also seven years 1913-20), with whose orchestra he made gramophone records, the Shaftesbury and the Adelphi. He worked for four and a half years (1926-30) for the BBC, which was from its beginning an encourager of all the light music composers we have mentioned and especially Coates, Fletcher, Reynolds and Haydn Wood - he conducted an ensemble known as the QLO Orchestra during those years and was briefly, in 1930, Assistant Conductor of the new BBCSO.

Ansell's compositions include both operettas and orchestral works, some of the latter incidental music, some not. Among the operettas were The King's Bride (1911), Medorah, songs from which were published, and Violette (1918) which has some happy characterisation. These all achieved modest success but not more than that. According to his obituary in The Times (15 December 1948), Ansell's incidental music 'exhibits a soundness of construction and vein of fantasy which should ensure it the regard of discriminating audiences'. Nevertheless it has all disappeared from view though his orchestral music once enjoyed popularity both with the seaside orchestras and on the BBC. (An early Serenade for cello and orchestras was premiered at the Proms in 1898.) If Plymouth Hoe is to be described as a nautical overture, the slightly longer The Windjammer could be similarly subtitled; there was also a 'military overture', Private Ortheris and another piece entitled Tally-Ho which might be reckoned as a hunting overture. The Overture to an Irish Comedy was just one of a number of Ansell pieces which drew inspiration from Ireland, others being the suite, Innisfail, Three Irish Pictures and Three Irish Dances. Other suites included a Children's Suite in no fewer than ten movements, though the suite played for no longer than 25 minutes if all were done at once, which in practice did not happen, a colourful Mediterranean Suite, in three dance-like movements representing Spain, Italy and France, and Suite Pastoral in four movements. Two dance suites were of interest: The Shoe, as an example of the ingenuity composers showed in devising fresh ideas and fresh titles for their light suites, which were ten a penny at that time - the five movements are entitled The Sabot (Rustic Dance), The Ballet Shoe, The Court Shoe (Passepied), The Sandal (Eastern Dance) and The Brogue (Strathspey); and the four Danses Miniatures de Ballet, whose interest lay primarily in including three euphoniums in the score as well as the usual wind and brass. Ansell never, in the twenty-odd scores I have looked through, wrote for more than two horns and his orchestras were otherwise on the small side, but the euphonium, just one this time, also figured in the Overture to an Irish Comedy and the extended waltz, The Toymaster of Nuremberg. Other orchestral pieces enjoyed popularity, like the light-weight entr'actes April Blooms and The Elves' Wedding, the march Spick and Span, the 'characteristic piece' The Grand Vizier, the overture John and Sam and the valse-lente Le Printemps. All well-written, attractively tuneful and showing an easy, flowing style, they are sadly all forgotten except for Plymouth Hoe, which was mentioned even in his obituary in The Times as his best remembered piece - and I have known people who have confused this with another overture, William Walton's so-different Portsmouth Point!

© Philip L Scowcroft.

Enquiries to Philip at

8 Rowan Mount



Philip's book 'British Light Music Composers' (ISBN 0903413 88 4) is currently out of print.

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